Here's a riddle: A young man walks into a building. From the outside, it looks like a nondescript, run-down, abandoned warehouse. Inside he finds mood lighting, music with throbbing bass, and young people wearing skinny jeans and superfluous scarves. A bar off to the side offers drinks of some sort, and a frenetically lit stage is shrouded in fog. Jumbo screens display what appear to be music videos. Everywhere people text on their iPhones.
A young woman with a nose ring and a vaguely Middle Eastern tattoo comes up andintroduces herself. She makes awkward (but refreshingly earnest) small talk about her passion for community gardens and food co-ops. She asks him if he has heard Arcade Fire's new album, and compliments him on his bushy beard and lumberjack look. Beards like that are cool, she says. Eventually she asks him for his contact information.
Question: Is the man in a bar? Or is he in a church?
It could go either way.
Welcome to the world of hipster Christianity. It's a world where things like the Left Behind book and film series, Jesus fish bumper stickers, and door-to-door evangelism are relevant only as a source of irony or nostalgia. It's a world where Braveheart youth-pastor analogies are anathema, where everyone agrees that they wish Pat Robertson "weren't one of us" and shares a collective distaste for the art of Thomas Kinkade.
The latest incarnation of a decades-long collision of "cool" and "Christianity," hipster Christianity is in large part a rebellion against the very subculture that birthed it. It's a rebellion against old-school evangelicalism and its fuddy-duddy legalism, apathy about the arts, and pitiful lack of concern for social justice. It's also a rebellion against George W. Bush—style Christianity: American flags in churches, the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and evangelical leaders who get too involved in conservative politics, such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell.
The new subculture of young evangelicals—I call them "Christian hipsters"—grew up on Contemporary Christian music (CCM), Focus on the Family's Adventures in Odyssey, flannel graphs, vacation Bible school, and hysteria about the end times. Now all of that is laughable to them, as they attempt to burn away the kitschy dross of the megachurch Christianity of their youth—with its emphasis on "soul-winning" at the expense of everything else—and trade it for something with real-world gravitas.
They prefer to call themselves "Christ-followers" rather than "Christians." They cringe at the thought of an altar call, and the prospect of passing out tracts gives them nightmares.
Christian hipsters alarm some church leaders and mystify others. But for many observers, hipster Christianity is an exciting development. It reassures them that not all young people are abandoning the church. They are just rehabilitating its image, making it their own.
In order to remain relevant in this new landscape, many evangelical pastors and church leaders are following the lead of the hipster trendsetters, making sure their churches can check off all the important items on the hipster checklist:
- Get the church involved in social justice and creation care.
- Show clips from R-rated Coen Brothers films (e.g., No Country for Old Men, Fargo) during services.
- Sponsor church outings to microbreweries.
- Put a worship pastor onstage decked in clothes from American Apparel.
- Be okay with cussing.
- Print bulletins only on recycled cardstock.
- Use Helvetica fonts as much as possible.
- Leverage technologies like Twitter.
This is what hipster Christianity looks like; this is what it requires. But what does it all mean? As the latest zeitgeisty Christian subculture in a long string of zeitgeisty Christian subcultures, what does hipster Christianity offer the church??
And what does it take away?
The History of Cool Faith
Before we examine those questions, we need to take a whistle-stop tour through the somewhat brief history of "Christian cool."
By most accounts, the story of cool Christianity begins in the 1960s. Its seeds were planted in the exploding post-war youth culture, which gave rise to a new emphasis on youth ministry within evangelicalism, the growth of parachurch organizations like Youth Specialties (founded in 1969), and a general feeling that, to reach increasingly rebellious and countercultural adolescents, Christianity had to get a bit edgier and wiser to the trends of the day.
But the biggest boost for cool Christianity came in the most unexpected way—when, in the late '60s and early '70s, hippies started following Christ. Acid-tripping, long-haired, sandal-wearing hippies like Ted Wise and Lonnie Frisbee led the pack, as hip Christian coffeehouses and communes sprung up in San Francisco, Greenwich Village, Chicago, and all across the country. Denominations like Calvary Chapel and Vineyard exploded, fueled by the charismatic fervor of the young hippie converts. Christian rock was born, led by people like Chuck Girard, a friend of Brian Wilson's whose band Love Song came out of the Laguna Beach dope scene, and Larry Norman, "the grandfather of Christian rock," whose 1969 masterpiece, Upon This Rock, is considered the first Christian rock album. It wasn't long, however, before the alternative/organic Jesus movement lost steam in the process of becoming mainstream. It wasn't long before "Christian rock" the movement became CCM the industry.
By the 1980s, most of the Jesus People had cut their hair, shaved their beards, and traded in their tunics and sandals for argyle sweaters and penny loafers. Yet the legacy of the hippie Christian movement was alive and well. For one thing, the deeply personal, experiential, Spirit-filled emphasis of the Jesus People remained as the charismatic movement took off, as well as the "just how you like it," seeker-sensitive approach that became common evangelical practice. This included an emphasis on the new and an elevation of trend and cool. Following the lead of Chuck Smith, whose outreach to hippies through Calvary Chapel reaped huge dividends, more evangelical leaders in the 1980s and '90s actively sought cool. They began to reach out to the youth culture and form churches to fit its needs—motivated by a renewed desire to be contemporary, current, and relevant.
As a result, evangelicalism in the '90s had a firmly established youth culture, built on the infrastructure of a lucrative Christian retail industry and commercial subculture. Huge Christian rock festivals, Lord's Gym T-shirts, WWJD bracelets, Left Behind, and so forth. It was big business. It was corporate. It was schlocky kitsch. And it was begging to be rebelled against.
Enter the age of the Christian hipster. As the '90s gave way to the 2000s, young evangelicals reared in the ostentatious Je$us subculture began to rebel. They sought a more intellectual faith, one that didn't reject outright the culture, ideas, and art of the secular world. In typical hipster fashion, they rejected the corporate mentality of the purpose-driven megachurch and McMansion evangelicalism, and longed for a simpler, back-to-basics faith that was more about serving the poor than serving Starbucks in the church vestibule.
They looked up to young Christian authors and pastors like Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, and Donald Miller, read Relevant magazine, adored indie-folk musician Sufjan Stevens, and were fascinated by ancient church liturgies and prayers. They began to dress and act like secular hipsters: drinking beer, getting tattoos, riding fixed-gear bikes, and eating raw and organic foods. They took interest in a broader range of issues (the environment, HIV/AIDS, globalization) than their parents' generation, and voted for Barack Obama.
In a way, the contemporary Christian hipster is a full-circle return to the Jesus People hippies of yesteryear. But the Jesus People were secular "hipsters" first, then—having converted to Christianity—began to shed their hippie clothes and customs to form communities that were set apart, ultimately becoming their own subculture (e.g., Jesus People USA). Today's Christian hipsters are doing the reverse. They seek to break out of the Christian subculture. The clothes and customs they shed are nothing less than the evangelical establishment itself, formed through decades of attempts at cool Christianity. Today's Christian hipsters retain their faith, but they want it to be compatible with, not contrary to, secular hipster counterculture. Their mission is to rebrand Christianity to be, if not completely void of its own brand altogether, at least cobranded and allied with the things that it had previously set itself in opposition to: art, academics, liberal politics, fashion, and so on.
As a result of its intentional melding of Christian and secular, hipster Christianity often feels a bit like a stealth operation. One cannot easily decipher the Christian elements of a Christian hipster, not because they aren't there, but because they aren't in the foreground as much as, say, the "can't miss it" sartorial expressions (lumberjack beards, vintage dresses, flask as accessory) that traditionally signify hip. You're telling me that indie folk singer is a Calvinist? Blue Like Jazz is a book about Christianity? That guy with the Poseidon tattoo I saw at the hookah bar last night is a Presbyterian pastor? Who knew?
The Hipster Look
In this confounding world of intentionally blurred distinctions and redefined categories, can we make out any clear marks of a Christian hipster?
What makes a church a "hipster church"? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it's a hipster church.
Of course that's simplistic. The hipster Christianity that I discovered during the research for my book—which entailed visits to hipster churches and interviews all over the country—is actually complex and diverse in its incarnations, even if it isn't very diverse in ethnicity and socioeconomics. Hipster Christianity isn't a monolithic subculture that can be easily categorized, but it definitely has some recognizable characteristics.
One thing we can fairly say of hipster Christianity is that it frequently strives for shock value. Take, for example, Seattle's Mars Hill Church—a Christian hipster Mecca pastored by Mark Driscoll, the polarizing Howard Stern of neo-Calvinist Christianity. On the Sunday I visited, Driscoll's message was on the Dance of Mahanaim in the Song of Solomon (an "ancient striptease," as he referred to it, and "one of the steamiest passages in the Bible"). During his sermon, Driscoll—looking like a metrosexual jock in an Ed Hardy—esque tight T-shirt, cross necklace, and faux-hawk—talked about how wives should be "visually generous" with their husbands (e.g., they should keep the lights on when undressing and during sex). I never thought I'd hear a preacher talk about these things from the pulpit. And that's exactly the point.
Hipster Christianity's attention to shock value manifests in others ways. Some churches hold their services in bars and nightclubs—Mosaic in L.A. meets in the Mayan nightclub, and North Brooklyn Vineyard in New York meets at a place called the Trash Bar. Some churches, like Grace Chicago, host wine tastings or schedule outings to microbreweries. I even attended an Anglican church a few years ago that sponsored a cookout with fine wines, beer, and a selection of cigars from the priest's own humidor. Other churches focus more on the shock value of sermons, delving into touchy subjects such as homosexuality, child abuse, sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and so on, sometimes with an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure.
Another distinguishing mark of hipster Christianity is the music in its worship services. In keeping with the overarching "avoid doing what everyone else is doing" motif of hipsterdom at large, most of the hipster churches I visited seemed done with the U2- starry-rock style that now dominates megachurch evangelicalism. Rather than contemporary praise choruses, many of them favored centuries-old hymns.
On the Sunday I visited Resurrection Presbyterian in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (the heart of worldwide hipster culture), the music was pared down (one singer and one instrumentalist), acoustic, vintage, and reverent. All the worship songs were old hymns, including "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise" and "Fairest Lord Jesus." Almost everyone in the audience was under 35.
Hipster Christianity also expresses itself theologically, through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and "new creation" ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It's not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It's the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity's attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.
Small But Influential
Lest we overemphasize its importance in worldwide Christianity, we should remember that hipster Christianity is a rather narrow subset of the faith: mostly white evangelical, mostly economically well-off. It has little pertinence to, say, a rural Appalachian church or a monastic community in Ohio, let alone most of Christendom in the non-Western world. It also has little impact on non-white communities in the U.S., a point made by Anthony Bradley—professor of theology at New York's King's College—in a recent blog post titled "Can hipster Christians reach non-hipster blacks and Latinos in urban areas?" Soong-Chan Rah asked a similar question in a recent Sojourners article, "Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?"
Hipster Christianity is undoubtedly a specific enterprise, which means its overall impact on global Christianity might be negligible. But it's clearly shaping some aspects of evangelical culture.
One of hipsterdom's positive values is its concern for justice—whether it be sweatshops or sex trafficking, water wells or finance reform. Hipsters almost always champion the cause of the underdog (immigrants, the poor, minorities) over those with power and privilege. Christians would be hard-pressed to find any Scripture passages that suggest Jesus didn't do the same. Many Christians, sadly, have moved away from social justice and fighting for the well-being of the downtrodden, but Christian hipsters are leading the way back.
Hipster Christians also have a healthy appreciation for the finer things in God's creation. With childlike awe and wonder that betrays their otherwise cynical demeanor, hipsters glory in the little pleasures of life: riding bikes along rivers, eating homemade macarons on a blanket in a friend's front yard, or playing Frisbee in the park. Hipsters appreciate the detail and artistry of creative, well-crafted films, music, books, and woodwork. They take the arts seriously and recognize their crucial part in human flourishing. Mainstream evangelical Christianity—too long in the ghetto of subpar subculture—should take note.
On the other hand, some wonder if hipster Christianity goes too far in embracing worldly things—especially when those things arguably become stumbling blocks or idols in the Christian life. Some suspect that its rebellious embrace of formerly taboo behaviors actually might do more long-term harm than good.
In order to be a hipster, one must be a rebel. Despite the fact that (ironically) hipster culture usually operates within and is sustained by the very structures it opposes, hipsterdom's raison d'être is countercultural, boundary-pushing rebellion. As such, hipster existence is frequently rife with vices. If hipsters cannot completely overthrow the structures that bind them, they can at least destabilize them by engaging in hedonistic behavior: smoking, drinking, cursing, sexual experimentation, and so on. It's about freedom, partying, and transgression—not in the Jersey Shore, frat-party sense (unless ironically), but in the "bourbon cask ales taste good and I don't care if I get drunk" sense. Hipsters ridicule bourgeois concerns such as "cigarettes cause cancer" and "drinking should be done in moderation," opting instead to recklessly embrace such vices with "why not?" abandon. If you aren't willing to engage in at least some of this "subversive hedonism," you will have a hard time maintaining any hipster credibility.
But what does this mean for Christian hipsters? When, in the name of rebellion and "freedom in Christ," Christian hipsters begin to look and act just like their secular hipster counterparts, drinking and smoking all the same things, shouldn't we raise a red flag?
Isn't Christianity supposed to be distinguishable and set apart from the world? Christian hipsters are rebelling against a mainstream Christianity that they see as too indistinguishable from secular mainstream culture (i.e., consumerist, numbers-driven, Fox News—watching, immigrant-hating, SUV-driving), but their corrective may not turn out much better. Some hipster Christianity is as indistinguishable from its secular hipster counterpart as yesterday's megachurch Christianity was indistinguishable from secular soccer-mom suburbia.
The challenge for hipster Christians is to figure out what it means, in their cultural context, to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24). We are new creations, and the old has passed away (2 Cor. 5:17). How does that mesh with the Pabst-guzzling, Parliament-smoking nonchalant image that seems important to many hipsters?
Another concern about hipster Christianity is its fundamentally disposable, moving-on-to-what's-next transience. Granted, there is a tension here, because hipsters are rediscovering ancient liturgy and hymns. But one gets the impression that these are valued mostly because they are countercultural and therefore cool in their own way. But cool is all about the "now." It relentlessly pursues the next big thing, abandoning today's trend for tomorrow's with mechanistic speed and efficiency (think trucker hats or messenger bags).
This "of the moment" trendiness is an understandably appealing quality for those seeking to advance Christianity in today's world. How can we be taken seriously if we are perceived as behind the times or irrelevant? This is the reasoning that leads many churches to obsess about keeping their churches on pace with the latest technologies, worship music trends, or theological buzzwords (missional!). But is this painstaking, resource-draining rat race of staying ahead of the pack worth it? And what happens to Christianity when it becomes, like hipsterdom, a chameleon of fleeting fashion and transient trend?
As hipster Christianity grows, the temptation for church leaders will be to fashion themselves (and their churches) in the hipster mold. But in so doing, these churches will likely only reinforce a growing distinction between "authentic hipster" and "wannabe hip" churches. The former type is often simply an organic embodiment of an urban environment where hipsters live (and, thus, attend church). These churches are hip not because they self-consciously strive to be, but because they happen to exist in a hipster milieu (e.g., Resurrection Presbyterian in Brooklyn, or Grace Church in London's Hackney neighborhood).
The latter type, on the other hand, appropriates what it perceives to be the prevailing hipster sensibilities in a utilitarian, "staying relevant" way. These wannabe hip churches—largely of the suburban, megachurch, and "contemporary evening service" variety—dress themselves in the accoutrements of hipsterdom not because they understand or value it, but because they are terrified of being excluded, left behind, or undesirable. They are playing catch up, frantically maneuvering to be in the inner rings of culture and fashion rather than the dreaded periphery.
Wannabe-hip churches are springing up everywhere these days, but what will it mean for the larger church? Will this sort of Christianity bring back the youth, or will it further alienate a younger generation fed up with being a target market? Will hipster Christianity repair Christianity's PR problem? Or will it fizzle in a faddish wisp before anyone can say lectio divina?
These are open questions. In the meantime, hipster Christianity is a sometimes encouraging, sometimes maddening, always fascinating phenomenon. It defies easy yes-or-no understanding. And that's precisely how it prefers it to be.
Brett McCracken is author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010). He works at Biola University in Los Angeles.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous articles from CT and its sister publications on trendy Christianity include:
'Jesus Was a Rebel' | Okay, he was. What's your point? (February 2, 2010)
Donald Miller: Make a Better Narrative | The author of Blue Like Jazz on his new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and the risks of over-spiritualizing it. (September 29, 2009)
What Leaders Can Learn from Rob Bell | His sold-out tour shows us a better way to engage listeners on today's topics. (Leadership Journal, November 26, 2007)
The Dick Staub Interview: Trusting in a Culturally Relevant Gospel | "Os Guinness says that evangelicals have never strived for relevance in society as much as they do now. Ironically, he says, they have never been more irrelevant" (August 1, 2003)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.